Loneliness in the elderly population is a growing health concern among families and physicians. According to the 2010 US Census Bureau, more people were 65 years of age and older in 2010 than in any other previous census. There were 40.3 million people who were 65 and older, which is an increase of 5.3 million since the 2000 census. The result is more lonely senior citizens. Many people experience loneliness as a result of living alone, lack of close family relationships, and age related losses.
One definition of loneliness is: “A complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connectedness or communality with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors.”
Aging Parents are Lonely for Family
Large portions of the elderly’s children live more than an hour’s drive from their aging parents. Over 80% of children who have moved away have done so due to the job market, which makes it hard for them to visit parents regularly. Today’s lifestyle does not permit for spending time with senior family members. Studies have shown that parents whose children do not visit at least twice a month suffer greater loneliness than those who do see their children more often. Additionally, older people who live alone have less face-to-face contact than those who live with a spouse. Adding to loneliness is the fact that aging inhibits mobility, therefore, the elderly tend to see less and less of their friends / acquaintances and are less likely to participate in community events.
Health Impacts of Elderly Loneliness
Loneliness, as a result of this lack of social contact, is a leading cause for poor physical and mental health among the elderly leading to early death. When loneliness sets in it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, over eating, under eating, excessive drinking, depression, heart disease and other debilitating diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis and glaucoma. People who are lonely are twice as likely to experience a decline in daily activities. Seniors who had been placed in a nursing or assisted living facility experience disorientation and loneliness as well. Health deterioration in the elderly who live alone and have few visitors is less likely to be noticed and followed up with medical attention.
The impact of loneliness on a loved one's health and well-being can be a great influence on the cost of their health care. Investing our time and supporting organizations that offer companionship will help alleviate the rising cost of health care and improve their quality of life. Such agencies as Area Agency on Aging can help to locate services such as Meals on Wheels or forms of transportation to be able to participate in community centers. Many church organizations offer senior programs as well.
As reported in Medscape Today News, a Dutch study reveals that people who feel lonely are significantly more likely to develop clinical dementia over a period of 3 years as compared to those who do not feel lonely.
Technology Gap of Elderly
While the younger generations are staying well connected with all of today’s high tech gadgets the elderly are often left out. Older family members need to feel connected, wanted, and loved. Friends can play a vital role and new friends can be found through senior centers. Families and communities need to play a greater role in the lives of their elderly loved one. Some training or introduction of electronic ways to connect may help bridge the gap to younger generations.
Risk Factors for Elderly Loneliness
- Women are more likely to experience loneliness
- The older the individual is, the more lonely they may be
- A person living alone
- Poor economic situation
- Poor outlook on health
- Infrequent contact with relatives and friends
- Adult children not living in close proximity
- Not able to use modern communication like Facebook, Email, Skype, etc.
Dealing with Loneliness
Below are some ideas for ways to encourage social interaction between a senior and others. Not all of these require a lot of time or money but can really help take the edge off loneliness:
- Learn programs like Skype to communicate with family and friends
- Keep socially active by joining senior center activities
- Daily exercise can ward off depression
- Keep ongoing communication even if it is just a daily 5 minute call
- Take up a hobby
- Adopt a pet – pet ownership can reduce feelings of isolation
- Ask friends and family to visit or call on a schedule so there is some contact every week
- Go on outings near other people: movies, shopping, restaurants, library, etc.
- Have more family get-togethers